Anyone who ever endured the pain of sweating over a piece of work only to have it disappear off the computer at the last minute will have empathy for Nicky Morgan this week. Toiling hard, she was the government minister with the most number of fringe events at the Conservative party’s annual conference. As I sat almost half-asleep watching her speak at a fifth event in 24 hours, she was spritely, confident, forthright. This is a woman on a mission, I thought, her speech is going to be cracking.
Each debate at conference has a theme. Morgan was well-briefed for each. Mental health? Here’s the breakdown of cash going to a range of services. Character? Check out our lovely character grant awards. Teaching standards? “A million more children are now in outstanding or good schools than in 2010,” she said before jabbing at unions who complained about bad things in schools. “I see lots of positive work,” she chuffed.
For schools, a competent but uncontroversial education secretary is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it means for less of a knockabout time as reforms are embedded. On the other, it can mean bad issues simply get worse for fear that tackling them will cause a furore.
So when questioned about the thorny issue of accountability measures and heads being sacked, the education secretary talked of the importance of excellence. When tight budgets came up, schools were told to work more efficiently. And when asked about workload, she described the many expert groups that the government says will come up with solutions.
But: that speech. Oh dear. This is the big annual set speech in which one expects to find radical ideas. Instead, almost nothing.
Beginning with the shonky statistic that in 2010 one in three young people couldn’t read, write or add up “properly” – who knows what properly means? – the only important pronouncement was that parents would be given a “right to request” full-day childcare from schools and “if enough parents” asked, the school would be “expected” to comply. Enough get-out clauses included to ensure nothing will ever really happen.
Then, she was off the stage. Why? Not clear. But it was now up to Cameron to fill the void. Alas, this was not to be. His announcement that religious supplementary schools will be inspected is important because all children should be kept safe, but it’s niche – and will likely lead to more headlines than impact.
Earlier in the week I noticed Morgan use the phrase “excellence everywhere”. If it’s not the title of a policy sitting in the Department for Education, it should be. Ideas are desperately needed for retaining teachers and placing them in the most disadvantaged communities.
It was, therefore, not so much the case that the prime minister stole his education secretary’s thunder but that education announcements were a wash-out altogether this year. Perhaps that’s because Morgan is more of a calm-seas kind of captain, but I can’t shake the feeling that a plan went awry at the last minute. Perhaps schools should be grateful to have avoided the storm.